Universities must do more to stop violence

I’ve thought very hard over the last couple of days about whether to comment on the shocking case reported by the Independent last week of a (male) senior lecturer (Dr Lee Salter) at Sussex University who beat up a (female) student with whom he had been having an affair. In the end I decided that I had to comment, as the case raises some very important questions.

I didn’t know anything about this until last week so I have nothing to add to the account of the events and subsequent criminal conviction given in the newspaper and suggest you read the details there. I will restrict my comments to the wider issues.

On Friday 12th August, shortly after the news broke of Lee Salter’s conviction, the University released a statement which I thought raised more questions than it answered. It  subsequently updated the statement to say that Dr Salter was no longer an employee of the University. Whether that means he was dismissed or that he resigned is not clear.

Among the statements made by the University in its press release is the following:

The University does not tolerate violence of any kind. However, in cases involving criminal charges, it is important that such matters are dealt with by the police and the courts, which take precedence over employment procedures. Pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings, the University kept the situation under review and monitored and assessed any risk to its students.

In my role as a Head of School at Sussex (a job I left just a couple of weeks ago), I had to deal with some disciplinary matters  so I’m very familiar with the content of the relevant procedures. In fact I did more of these than you’d probably imagine, though I can’t write about the details because they are bound by confidentiality.

It is indeed the case that if a disciplinary case involves criminal elements then the established practice is to let the courts decide first before continuing with the disciplinary investigation. For one thing, a conviction in a criminal case usually makes the subsequent internal investigation simpler.

Acquittal in a criminal case does not mean dropping the disciplinary, however, as the standard of proof in a criminal case (“beyond reasonable doubt”) is stronger than that of an internal investigation which is that of a civil court (“on the balance of the evidence”). It is quite possible for the latter standard to be met when the former is not. So it was reasonable for the University to wait for the outcome of the criminal trial before proceeding.

However, the University of Sussex’s own disciplinary procedure also states:

“The University will take disciplinary action in accordance with its procedures against anyone who behaves in a violent manner including, should it be necessary, the immediate exclusion of the perpetrator from the campus.

Based on the account given in the Independent I find it difficult to understand why the University did not take this course of action in this case.

Of course a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, but suspension (paid) and exclusion from campus would not, in my view, have been unnecessarily prejudicial given the seriousness of the charges. Salter would not have been able to do teaching, but could have carried on research from home. The University’s failure to take this step is extremely worrying as in my view it gives inadequate consideration to the effect on the victim of the continued presence of the perpetrator.

For the record I should state that I have very good reasons for having zero tolerance to any form of violence, whether committed by staff or students or political protestors or security guards. You can read why here.

I’ve blogged before about the difficulties surrounding confidentiality and other issues disciplinary procedures in the context of sexual harassment. In that piece – which was actually about science departments – I tried to stress the importance of sticking to proper procedure, but I also explained that dealing with such matters after the fact is never going to provide a fully satisfactory remedy. What is needed is to change campus culture to ensure that abusive harassing and violent behaviour doesn’t happen in the first place. But applying procedures properly would at least be a start…





20 Responses to “Universities must do more to stop violence”

  1. Paul Havem Says:

    I think the Independent article was pretty slipshod and basic journalistic standards were lacking. A simple check of the details could have helped confirm the facts of the case, for example it doesn’t seem to be prima facie clear that she was a student, nor that the event unfolded in the manner indicated in the Indy. Whilst domestic violence is horrifying, and the lecturer was found guilty, there was no need to sensationalise the case by the Independent. At some point, someone will unpick the story properly so we can learn the right lessons from this case. At the moment, the twitter storm and pitchforks on social media are truly are frightening thing.

    • telescoper Says:

      The University of Sussex response to which I linked confirms she was a student.

      • Paul Havem Says:

        It says “former student” in the press release. If she were a former student then it would explain why the policy for student-teacher relationships didn’t apply? And why the uni had to wait for the trial conclusion before acting? Only conjecture from me, but the story is so oddly presented in the Indy and you think they would check? But then the Indy lost its journalistic standards a long time ago..

      • Paul Havem Says:

        Of course access to the magistrates court records would help a lot too explaining the whys and whats of this case. For example, if the violence were as serious as indicated in the Indy then wouldn’t it go to Crown Court? And with that a stiff prison sentence. Being over 60 I remember when journalists took the time to check this kind of thing..

      • telescoper Says:

        My lawyer friends tell me that s suspended sentence is normal for a first offence. And the charge was at a level appropriate for a magistrate to hear. No transcripts are made of proceedings in a magistrates court.

        I think the journalist did check, and so did the legal department of the Independent.

        Dr Salter is apparently appealing his conviction, though I do not know on what grounds.

  2. Paul Havem Says:

    Thanks for the clarification. That at least explains why it didn’t go higher. The internet is a wonderful thing.

    • This agrees with my experiences. I have had to deal with such cases, and in all cases the university was mainly interested in its own reputation and tended to downplay things to keep it out of the news . There was little support for dealing with it. I found that a harsh treatment worked much better than a slap on the wrist. For people on temporary contacts, non-renewal works. But even for academic staff, there are plenty of strong options available which don’t involve HR, leaving the option of an official complaint still completely open.

      I was surprised by the amount of tolerance of such behaviour in scientific environments. Harassment can be personally devastating for the junior party, as well as career-ending. We tolerate too much.

      • telescoper Says:

        One of the key things is the perception that (a) it won’t be pursued seriously and (b) it may damage the complainer’s career. Until universities (and other organizations) find ways of making it clear that these aren’t true then we won’t make any progress.

      • Both of which become self-perpetuating. It is not always necessary to wait for a complaint. Other people will often be aware that something is not quite right and if they feel free to warn you, it may be possible to take pre-emptive action. Once the feeling exists that harassment is actively dealt with, people become more open to talk.

        There should be a way to complain anonymously. That is something the University here does provide, but it only works once people expect that harassment is taken seriously.

        Sexual harassment is not the only one, of course., Dealing with bullying is also important, and in a way I found this harder.

  3. A friend did sit in on this case in the court . She told me tHe newspaper reporting is really weird and it is stupid that salter is not correcting the wrong details.

  4. This case definitely makes no sense. Salter was found guilty of “common assault” which according to the CPS is “where there is no injury or injuries which are not serious, the offence charged should generally be Common Assault”. How can that be when teh newspapers are reporting something far worse. There is no way the injuries in the photos are common assault, so either the court is incompetent or the photos are not part of this case?

    • telescoper Says:

      You need to consider the legal definition of a “serious injury”. In the UK this term covers injury resulting in a person being detained in hospital as an in-patient, in addition all injuries causing: fractures, internal injuries, crushings, burns, severe cuts, etc, which require medical treatment even if this does not result in a stay in hospital as an in-patient.

      It seems the court decided that in this case the injuries did not meet this definition.

      • ok, thanks. but still raises the question as to why newspapers are reporting a more serious case of violence and using those photos as evidence. is this usual that newspapers can exaggerate in this way? Isn’t it libel?

      • actually.. I guess their lawyers would be on hand to make sure they don’t go too far…

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, I’m sure the legal department has looked at this.

        While the pictures show considerable bruising, I don’t think they provide evidence of anything beyond the definition given above.

  5. btw, love your blog. tho white text on black background hurts the eyes!

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